I love tofu: firm or silken, smoked or not, freshly made or prepackaged, I'll happily take them all. I also love meat. I happen to really, really like tofu and meat together, as in, in the same dish.
If this pairing seems incongruous to you, then you've probably missed out on many of the best dishes that Asian, particularly Chinese, cuisines have to offer. You see, in America tofu has acquired a pretty poor reputation for being the wan, tasteless, colorless and textureless ingredient that people sub in for meat, resulting in such unfortunate products as Tofurky, Boca Burgers, and the like. You can't taste the tofu in these things at all; it's covered up, hidden away behind a thick veil of salt, herbs and spices.
Asian cooking takes a different stance on tofu. It's a revered ingredient, one whose smooth texture and clean flavor is as at home nestled in among a medley of vegetables as it is sitting shoulder to shoulder with, say, some pork...shoulder. Rather than attempting to substitute tofu for meat, Asian recipes oftentimes place the two together--a sort of yin and yang, if you will forgive the terrible, terrible pun, a harmonious, balanced relationship that allows both ingredients to shine. Some of Asia's most famous dishes--such as Chinese mapo dofu, Korean kimchi jjigae, Filipino tokwa't baboy, and Thai pad thai--all call for both meat and tofu. All are delicious.
It was from Asia that I took my cue last night when I decided I wanted to have a light, flavorful and balanced soup for dinner. I had made some Chinese-style chicken earlier in the week, and as a result I had a whole potful of chicken broth flavored with ginger, scallion and Szechuan peppercorns leftover. To give my soup a sort of Thai inflection--bearing tom yum soup in mind--I heated up the broth with some crushed lemongrass, poaching some additional chicken thighs at the same time. When the chicken was cooked through, I shredded it and added it back to the broth, along with some sliced shiitake mushrooms, some diced drained tofu, and some soba noodles. When the noodles were just cooked, I added dashes of dark soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine vinegar to taste and topped off my bowl with some thinly sliced scallion. Utilizing Chinese broth, Thai herbs and Japanese mushrooms and noodles, this soup was definitely all over the map. But the one thing about it that I think all those various nations could appreciate is its perfect union of meat and soy.
Asian Soba Noodle Soup with Chicken and Tofu
4 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade, if possible flavored with aromatics such as ginger, scallion and garlic
1 stalk fresh lemongrass
1/2 a block extra-firm tofu, or use smoked tofu
2 chicken thighs, bone-in, skin removed
8 - 10 shiitake mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 generous handful Japanese soba noodles
2 scallions, thinly sliced
Dark soy sauce
Rice wine vinegar
1. Drain the tofu: cut the half block of tofu in half again, this time lengthwise. Place the two pieces on a deep plate lined with paper towels, then put a heavy plate on top. Weight it down; I used a large can of tomatoes. Place in fridge and allow to drain for at least a half an hour.
2. Heat the chicken broth. Add a length of lemongrass that you have crushed with the back of a knife. Add the chicken thighs. Bring the broth to a gentle simmer and cook until the chicken is cooked through, about 8 - 10 minutes. Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon and let cool in fridge.
3. When chicken is cool, shred it with your fingers and place the meat back in the pot. Remove the tofu from the fridge and cut it into small, evenly sized cubes. Add them to the pot. Add the sliced mushrooms and bring the soup back to a simmer.
4. When soup is simmering, add the soba noodles. Cook until they are al dente, about 6 - 7 minutes. Discard lemongrass. Add dashes of soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine vinegar to taste. Salt to taste and garnish soup with sliced scallions.